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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Giveth and Winter Taketh Away

It's the fourth week in January. The paperwhites in the front of the shop smell great & the hyacinths in my window at home are ready to open, but nobody's fooled. It's still winter, and here in Chicago, it's going to be winter for a long, long time yet. Which is fine with me: I love winter.

I also love antiques. Put those two things together, then toss a week in New York City into the mix and what you get is the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory, now going into its umpteenth year. If you don't already know the Park Avenue Armory, it's a massive red-brick pile on the Upper East Side, built by the veterans of  the Seventh Regiment in the late Nineteenth Century, with a series of grand reception rooms decorated & furnished by the biggest names of the era--Tiffany, Herter, that crowd.

Even during the Armory's  decades-long period of benign neglect, its heroically-scaled interiors were impressive, but thanks to the efforts of the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, its carved woodwork & art glass windows and geometric tile floors look just as handsome as they did when the place was new. The only difference is that, back then, the whole fashionable world was full of Eclectic-style rooms that--on a much reduced scale, at least--showed a similar taste, and these days, it's not. But that's OK. Even when these rooms were new, they were never meant to appeal to the masses. The Eclectic Look has come down in the world since then.  Today the word pretty much means anything you want it to mean.

At any rate, the Armory is once again a showplace, and when the greatest antique dealers in the world install a zillion dollars worth of their best pieces in the great Drill Hall, well, it's a don't-miss event. One of the dealers whose booth is always one of my favorites is Barbara Israel Garden Antiques, whose specialty is just what it sounds. This year, among other good-looking pieces, she's showing this Nineteenth Century marble bust of   Perseus. 

My own taste for classical statuary & the odd  architectural fragment got a jump-start one year in high school in Beloit, Wisconsin, when I  made a sandcast plaster-of-Paris mask of Apollo using as a model a busted head of the god that I found in the art deparment's storage closet. When I asked the teacher where Apollo had come from he looked puzzled. "Who? Oh, you mean David? He came from the College"--meaning Beloit College, right across the Rock River from the school. 
Photo copyright by Roland Bello for O at Home magazine,  Autumn 2008

As it turned out, the Eclectic Style wasn't the only thing that came down in the world. Slumming around with the bent bicycle wheels & splintered bushel baskets that were stored in the art room prop closet--and missing part of his plaster nose besides--Apollo no longer looked like much, but  he had probably started out, I later learned, at the very top: First on Mount Olympus, then at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where blinding white (and electrically lit) classic style buildings stretched for an entire mile along the shores of Lake Michigan.
In 1893, the government of Greece had sent a huge collection of full-size plaster casts of classical sculpture to Chicago, and after the fair closed, the collection of casts was dispersed, some of it going to the Art Institute and other pieces going to Beloit College
Photo courtesy the amazing John Chuckman

where the best pieces went on display in the college museum. As tastes changed, however, most of the collection was slowly  banished to storage in the college basement, from which area a lot of the pieces disappeared. When Apollo's missing head surfaced at my school, he was sent right back to storage, this time in the art department's prop closet, which is where I came across him. Anyway, my copy-of-a-copy Apollo was the start of my collection of fragments, most of which, I'm sorry to say,  have an even shakier provenance than he does. Nothing's worth much.
A few years back, I saved this handsome five-foot section of the Parthenon frieze from probable destruction. Of course, that's what Lord Elgin said, too, but in this case, it's absolutely true, since I found it in the neighbor's trash pile.

My marble urn, on the other hand, is probably worth more than everything else I own, all put together.  I had always assumed it was a Victorian piece--and the top, with its carved figure of a grieving woman really is a Victorian replacement of a missing lid--but a few years ago, after my first visit to the newly-installed Classic galleries in the former Dorotheum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I realized that my urn may actually be older than I thought--lots older.

 Photo copyright
This incredible piece dates to Second Century Rome, and, with its refined double strigilation & elegant serpent handles, it makes my simpler version look a poor country relation, but mine has the same elegant shape, and the fact that my urn has a lid gives it a distinct practical advantage over the one in New York: that is,  in summer, I can store my winter scarves in there.  You can't do that with the Met's. You can't even touch the thing.  

Speaking of which--winter, that is--I didn't make it to the Winter Antiques Show after all, this year. I never go on Thursday because Opening Night tickets are $1000 a pop, or more than I budget for the entire week, but by Friday afternoon, I'm usually either zooming off to O'Hare or--if I have more time--down to Union Station to take Amtrak: the train is generally more fun. But this year, as I said, I never made it out of town. Then again, on Friday, no one was going anywhere. Not out of Chicago, they weren't.  But it was OK.
Photo copyright by Opacity at
In the end, of course, it all balanced out. Because as much as I was hoping to make it to The Winter Antiques Show this year, if I had been in New York on Friday night, I would have missed this view from my bedroom window. 
And on a night like last Friday--antiques or no antiques--there really is no place like home

Friday, January 13, 2012


When last year's big blizzard hit, it caught us completely by surprise, meaning that after spending half an hour shoveling out the 20-foot parking spot in front of our shop--Jeeves was off that day--I realized we didn't have a single busted plastic lawn chair or rusty grill to set out, which items, according to Chicago's unwritten etiquette, are the correct thing for claiming Dibs on a parking spot after you've shoveled it. (And if you don't know about this wonderful tradition, check out the column in today's Chicago Tribune by the great John Kass)  But hey, I didn't watch "MacGyver" all those years for nothing. So lacking the proper symbols, I made do: I dragged an antique leopard-spotted  chair out to the curb, where it not only served to stake out our territory, but also--for a few minutes, anyway--helped to elevate the tone of our neighborhood, which is still, as they say, 'up and coming.'  High & Low, you know?  It's all about the mix. Or so they tell me.

When I was a kid growing up in Beloit, Wisconsisn, my mother worked for a group called Community Concerts, whose goal was--and, apparently, still is--to bring music to small towns without orchestras of their own, and one year, we had a group called the Norman Luboff Choir. They probably sang for an hour and a half, but I the only thing I remember of the whole concert was a silly but gorgeously-sung snippet of an encore that lasted all of about ten seconds: "Help keep our junkyards beautiful--throw away something lovely today." It got a big laugh because it was the era of Lady Bird Johnson's campaign to get Americans to stop throwing trash out their car windows.

That same impulse towards beauty,then, was the motive behind my hauling our leopard chair out to the slushy street--except that I wasn't really throwing it away. Not, of course, that some people didn't slow down, just in case.

Anyway, so the line in that song was what was running through my mind as I ran back & forth across the street, dodging traffic to adjust the chair's angle, trying to get a shot of it sitting just so in front a pile of dirty snow before I lost the light. Well, that line, and the personal mission statement that Elsie De Wolfe came up with over a century ago:  "I am going to make everything around me beautiful. That will be my life.”

Elsie, what a gal: actress, decorator, honored with the Croix de Guerre & the Legion d'Honneur  for her work in WWI, and named Best Dressed Woman in the world at age seventy.  Personally, compared to her, I feel like a total slacker, with not a single medal to my name. But we all do the best we can. If, in my case, that meant sticking an antique leopard-spotted fauteuil outside in a puddle of slush for the sake of a picture, so be it. Even if it was only there for a moment, it was long enough. Besides, Elsie always did  like leopard.
                                                            Elsie Photo By George Hoyningen Huene, 1930 

By the way, if you're in town, stop into the shop this weekend for the last few days of our January sale: Twenty percent off all antiques and up to sixty percent off selected items. And just so you know, I cleared that parking spot for you. I don't even have a car. We're at 1822 West Grand Avenue. You'll recognize the chair. Antinuous will greet you.